Teri Orr: Freedom to — say it all…
It was a big week for me — I finally saw the Tony award-winning musical “Hamilton” and I watched a modern day firestorm happen over that very first amendment.
And I was reminded why I rarely book comedy into our theater.
First — spoiler alert — “Hamilton” takes the story of the founding of our country, sets it to a combination of rap and hip hop music (throws in a ballad) never lets the audience have a second not be fully engaged in the thrilling story — most of which we have become completely inured to — and breathlessly lays open and raw, how very human those men and women were.
I confess — it took me a minute to adjust to the colorblind cast and brilliance of that. Seeing George Washington played by a short Asian man and Hamilton as a large black man did what I suspect Lin-Manuel Miranda had in mind. It made realize me the brilliance of our very human, flawed, founding fathers (and mothers) and the rights they dreamed were possible for all men who were created equal. It compressed the hopes and fears of those historical figures in a single groundbreaking musical.
I remembered seeing some PBS special in 2009 about a Spoken Word/Poetry arts evening at the Obama White House. (Remember when we had those?) It featured this young guy performing a spoken word/rap song about Hamilton. That television special made me reconsider RAP as a powerful storytelling form — in a positive edgy way. After that, I really listened to RAP music — to hear the story.
Miranda created several songs about the founding fathers and performed them in a variety of places before he pieced together “The Hamilton Mixtape.” And then Miranda went on to win all the prizes — all of them — the Emmy, Grammy, MacArthur Fellowship, Pulitzer and Tonys — so many Tonys. He mined the raw beginnings of this remarkable experiment in democracy and helped us see those brave, flawed, ambitious, vain, passionate men and women with new eyes.
My day and night job involves bringing all kinds of performers to various stages to perform. For 20 years it has been a privilege to do that. I can count on one hand the number of times I have booked comedy. I’m a big fan of laughing and finding humor in everyday things — politics and fur balls and wacky drivers and living with technology. But I also find it is far more individual and personal than dance or song or a play. Comedy can turn — in the moment — and is meant to be a bit freestyle. Personally, I find it turns vulgar or mean too often and while I may want to push an audience’s comfort levels with a controversial speaker, I just don’t feel the same about a stand-up routine that is based in insults. Sure — there have been exceptions — Paula Poundstone is my favorite — she just makes fun of life — mostly her own — and she doesn’t have to degrade anyone else to tell a good story. She makes fun of the peanuts (or lack of them) on a plane, or life with her cat or her kids or the packaging that resists opening and politics. She just sees the messy world with amusement.
This spring marked my 40th anniversary of writing this column. I know a bit about flopping when trying to make light of something. I know about sticking sacred pigs and watching them bleed. I have been — more than once — the center of a firestorm for something I said — in print. I have written stories in this small space more than 2,000 times and I have bombed in a spectacular, controversial passion that offended more than once. Mostly when it hit too close to some politician or political process. I have a right to do that because those old white boys created a document they immediately amended to create my right — and yours — to criticize our government. It has kept us checking and balancing for centuries.
Which brings me to Michelle Wolf — the comedian who was given the tough — near failure-insured task — of skewering the pompous body politic known as The White House. At the annual Correspondents’ Dinner there is a predictable banquet meal and an unpredictable comedian to roast the Current Occupant and the dust cloud of people who come and go around him.
I didn’t watch the event in real time and saw it (taped) after I returned home from a dinner. And before the internet blew up with both criticism and defense of the monologue. I didn’t love her routine. I didn’t find her delivery effective. I didn’t laugh out loud which I often do at the roast. I cringed a few times when she made fun of Sarah Huckabee. But she wasn’t vulgar or hateful or other comedy killers for me. It just wasn’t my cup of spiked tea.
When I woke up the next day to the explosion on the internet about her gig and the threats to her and demands for apologies — I was shocked. She was invited to do a job — admittedly a dumb job — and she did it as expected, really. And if her criticism of the President or his staff seemed out of line — here is what it wasn’t — treasonous. She has all the rights to make fun of politicians and those who work in that arena for their foibles and heavy-handed eye make-up. She has those rights because those white guys — who weren’t all that old — had such vision about how we could govern and create a democracy the rest of the world would call “the light on the hill.”
Maybe next year — to change up the vibe — the Correspondents’ Dinner could feature Miranda. And then everyone would want to be in “the room where it happens…” Just a free range thought in a democracy, this Sunday in the Park…
Teri Orr is a former editor of The Park Record. She is the director of the Park City Institute, which provides programming for the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Center for the Performing Arts.
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